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Afraid of the Dark

Joe Watson, in his pre-Tent City days.

So imagine this.

You're home on a Thursday night, watching TV. You live with your college sweetheart, a fellow journalist, a guy you'd once planned to marry. But you broke up a couple of months ago, and although you're still living together, he hasn't been home in two days.

Then you see him — on the 10 o'clock news. On the surveillance tape they're playing, he's guiding a young woman to the back of the tanning salon where she works. He's wearing the flannel shirt you bought him.

And he's brandishing what looks like a gun under a paper bag.

That's when you realize: Your fiancé is the "Salon Bandit."

That is the story spelled out in a Scottsdale Police Department affidavit, filed in Maricopa County Superior Court last month, and reported here for the first time. The story was confirmed in an e-mail by Ashlea Deahl, who recently acknowledged her role in the Salon Bandit's capture to me.

The Salon Bandit.

Deahl's former fiancé, and my former co-worker, Joe Watson.

The affidavit tells us that Deahl called Scottsdale Police at 10:40 p.m. on March 29 to report that she'd recognized Watson on the news. She was "very emotional," the police reported.

According to Deahl's account, Watson is a gambling addict. I can tell you he was also a talented journalist. But that's before he bottomed out, before he left New Times and his career took a sad trajectory.

By the time Deahl called, police had said the Salon Bandit held up at least five stores in Scottsdale, claiming to have a gun and demanding contents of their registers. In each case, he targeted small shops or salons where women were closing up alone.

He threatened to shoot one of the women. He ordered another to give him "the fucking money" and promised a third that if she didn't comply, "it's not going to be good for you."

That's Joe Watson.

And thanks to the love of his life, a woman brave enough to do the right thing, he's now facing a few decades in prison.

Good riddance.


I used to be one of those dumb girls who drank too much and depended on the kindness of strangers to get me home. I used to go running after dark, in the not-so-great part of town. And, yeah, I hitchhiked. Just twice, but still, I did it armed only with cheery smile and a sense of my own invincibility.

I was young. And I'd always been lucky.

Things changed for me not because of Joe Watson, but because of a pair of cases that had the entire area on edge last summer. I'd always felt safe wherever I was — until we had two serial killers in the headlines. For a while, it seemed as if someone was getting murdered or raped every day.

Both sets of killers struck within a few blocks of my apartment. And both of their attacks were so random, so senseless, that, suddenly, it wasn't enough to be young(ish) and lucky. It never had been, I suppose. But last summer, that idea finally hit home, and I haven't slept well since.

I remember reading about Robin Blasnek. Twenty-two years old and so carefree that she left her home in her pajamas and slippers to visit a friend who lived a few blocks away. The Serial Shooters got her that hot July night, right before the police got them. I cried, even though I'd never met her, cried even though I felt stupid crying. It's the pajamas that get me, even today — the sheer innocence that comes with believing your neighborhood is safe, that the world is a good place, that screwed-up assholes don't gun down young women in the street just because they can.

You can safely rely on the kindness of strangers 500 times. It takes only one awful person, that 501st stranger, to make you realize that you never should have been so trusting.

That's when everything changes. Suddenly that bump in the night may not be your cat. That man smiling at you in the parking lot may be carrying a knife.

You can't hitchhike anymore. You don't even walk alone after dark.

Now, I know that my old colleague Joe Watson isn't a serial killer. As best we know, he was never actually violent in a single robbery. Not physically, anyway. That's what the Scottsdale Police affidavit says, and that certainly fits with the Watson I knew.

But just because he never hit anyone, or shot anyone, doesn't mean he didn't terrorize a whole group of people. It wasn't only the five women that he's known to have threatened. Even the women at the central Phoenix salon where I get my hair cut knew about the Salon Bandit, knew about his robberies long before his ex-fiancée outed him to the cops as a successful journalist.

 

They knew because they worked at a salon. Sometimes they had to close up, alone, at night. And they were afraid.


Joe Watson was — and I suppose still is — a gifted writer. He was also charming. He told several people on staff here that he hoped they'd mentor him, that they were great writers and he wanted to learn everything they could teach him. (Believe me, that sort of flattery works on journalists, who tend to be a needy crew.)

He could be a puppy dog when wounded: "Can you give me a hug?" It sounds dreadful, but it wasn't, not when he was landing good scoops and swapping war stories over beer.

But Watson left New Times under ugly terms more than a year ago. He wasn't making his deadlines and couldn't account for why. And he was hitting up co-workers for cash, even as he took freelance assignments under a fake name for Phoenix Magazine, where his girlfriend was an editor. All of us "great writers" got stuck with extra work to cover for him.

So, he was out the door and on to a series of progressively less prestigious writing and editing gigs. He didn't last long in any of them.

Then, two months ago, Watson began his one-man crime spree in Scottsdale. (Police are exploring the possibility of heists across the Valley.) The gambling jones that fueled so much of Watson's scamming and scheming finally turned him into a real crook.

Not a good one. Police records suggest that Watson managed to net a measly $877 in his five Scottsdale heists. And he was such an idiot that he did at least one of the robberies wearing his beloved Red Sox cap. According to the cops' affidavit, when they followed his ex-fiancée's suggestion and tracked down his Nissan Xterra at Casino Arizona, that hat and the plaid shirt worn in one stickup were in plain sight.

It might be funny — except that even a novice can terrorize an entire community.

When my colleague, Stephen Lemons, wrote about Watson at blogs.newtimes.com/bastard, plenty of Watson's friends posted comments defending him. Watson hates guns, his friends wrote. The police must have been wrong to charge him with armed robbery.

"Joe is a self-proclaimed bleeding heart liberal," one woman wrote. "So my guess was he didn't own a gun."

That's missing the point.

It doesn't take a gun to kill someone's spirit. It just takes fear.

At one Scottsdale store, police records say, the clerk gave Watson $384 from the register. Then he ordered her to into the back room. No pushover, she refused.

"The suspect reached back into his pocket and raised his hand pointing it at her," the police detective reported. "She thought he was going to shoot her."

Watson himself doesn't get it. He's stuck in Tent City, unable to raise bail. But through a friend, he posted a long, self-aggrandizing letter on his MySpace page, asking for donations to pay for a lawyer. ($20 or $50 would be nice, he helpfully suggests.)

"I've overcome much adversity in my life, some I created myself, but much that was beyond my control," he writes, with an astonishing lack of self-awareness. "I've also suffered great weaknesses, displayed extremely poor judgment, and made a general ass out of myself. But I have never lost hope that I will one day become the man that many of you believe I'm capable of becoming."

It's nauseating — made even more so by the fact that he never once mentions his victims. He's far too busy pitying himself.

Characteristically, Watson does mention Deahl, his former fiancée. "You all know that there's no more who means more to me or who I love more on this Earth," he writes. He was always crazy about her.

But it's apparent in retrospect: The person on Earth who means most to Joe Watson is himself.

I contacted Deahl after I found out she'd been the one to turn Watson in. I wasn't surprised that she didn't want to give me an interview; she's not someone who seeks the spotlight, even under happier circumstances.

But she agreed to share some of her thoughts by e-mail. Her words are far more poignant than any paraphrase could be:

I supported and loved Joe for more than two years while he fought a nasty gambling problem and tried to get help. I believed that, at his core, he was a good person, a talented person, and I desperately wanted for the good in him to win out, despite the fact that my intuition told me to let go long before I did.

 

And then she saw him on the news.

I was shocked and devastated, to say the least, but in that moment, he stopped being the Joey I had known and loved for five years . . . he had become a shell of who he was, and he had become a threat to himself and others.

By turning him in, Deahl adds,

I simply did what I felt was right, but it was the hardest thing I've ever had to do. It's not something I ever imagined he would do, or I, in turn, would have to do. Now, I'd simply like to move on with my life without him. I sincerely hope that he, and anyone else like him, gets the help he needs and, someday, lives a happy life.

I admire Deahl's generous spirit. If I were in her shoes, I wouldn't be rooting for him. I'd be too angry.

Really, even from my perspective as an outsider to Watson's crimes, I have a hard time forgiving him.

I keep thinking about how I became afraid of the dark last summer. But while I lost my fearlessness because of things that happened to other people, the women who were closing up at Bath & Body Works and Subway and Tan Factory lost theirs because of something much more personal — and surely much more frightening.

Watson could have robbed banks, but that would have required the chutzpah to risk a confrontation with a security guard or a teller. One of them might have been a man, and might have been stronger than him.

Instead, he chose women who were alone, and alone at night, because he knew he could frighten the hell out of them.

I've been thinking about those women. I hope they don't lie awake at night, as I do, and worry about every noise outside their window. I hope they don't distrust every stranger who smiles at them on a dark night.

But thanks to Joe Watson, it can't be easy for them.

And I hate him for that.


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